I was talking to a colleague recently and promised to share some of the questions I ask when auditing a project (or taking one over).
My first question is generally “what is the project about?” But that generally leads to a vague answer. So I use my “question compass”:
These are the questions I use to get a basic orientation when analyzing just about anything. By way of explanation though, I don’t always use the exact wording shown.
When asking “what do you mean” I use a technique that sounds really simple and is surprisingly effective – the “nouns and verbs” technique.
I listen for a noun in a sentence and then ask “what do you mean by ‘noun’?”. When I get a response I ask about one of the verbs in the response “How do people currently ‘verb’?” or “How do you envision people will ‘verb'”.
I keep doing this for a little while even if I think I know what people mean because it is amazing how often it clarifies my understanding. Then I pick one of the things the person said and ask “why are we doing this project?”.
I do use the famous 5-whys technique to probe more deeply (ie ask why several times) but I also add the question “why else?”.
I was once told that we do things for two reasons – the right reason (the one we tell people) and the real reason. I think it is a quote from someone famous. But it certainly clarifies my thinking when I ask this question.
My next question is “Is that true?” and I ask this one in a number of ways:
- What would the team say the purpose is if I asked them?
- Do all the steering committee share the same understanding?
- How do you know that is true? How do others know?
- How would you know if that was not the case? (my favourite question).
Almost there – but I still have one last question – “So what?”. Like asking if something is true, asking so what can seem a bit blunt. So I ask it in a couple of different ways:
- What impact is that having?
- What would happen if we didn’t do it?
- What would the impact be over the long term if we don’t do it?
- What will happen if we do it? What else will happen? What won’t happen?
- What are you hoping won’t happen if we do that?
- What will the team/customer say when it happens?
After these questions I generally at least have some idea of what is going on – which is often the best place to start.